Raw Survival Skills: How to Light a Fire When TSHTF

Fuel.  Oxygen.  Ignition.  The three things you need in order to light a fire.

There have been times when I’ve been in the woods and the ability to start a fire has turned a bad situation into a comfortable one.  I’ve been starting campfires a long time now, and like anyone who’s done something for awhile, I’ve developed a favorite way of doing it.  If you live in a different climate such as the desert your technique might be different from mine because you’ll have different materials to work with; however, the basic concepts remain the same.

The most important thing you can have when it comes to making a fire is… knowledge!  Let’s look at the individual components that make up a fire.


For the sake of the post let’s get to the knowledge part first.  When creating a fire the first thing you need is some good tinder.  Tinder is anything that will light easily. This will burn very quick and you should have enough to light the larger kindling that is the next step.  There are many forms of tinder available in the woods depending on where you live.  Here in the northeast I usually keep my eyes out for birch bark off a paper birch tree.  On top of that I’ll put some dead pine branches – the very ends of the branches make excellent fire starter.  With this combination and a match I can have a fire going in seconds.

If you want to bring in some tinder with you newspaper is an excellent source.  Again, there are many different types of tinder you can use, but I prefer whatever can be found in nature and that way I’m not dependent on carrying extra stuff with me.

If you’re going to use a fire steel you need to find something that will catch very quickly.  Some people like charcloth, which you can make yourself.  In nature I usually try to find dead grass and then rub it between my hands until it’s very coarse.  Then I shape it into a “birds nest” and strike the fire steel into the depression until one of the sparks catch.  Blow on it gently until you get a good flame then start adding the kindling.

This is probably the hardest phase of lighting a fire and it’s crucial that you have all your materials at hand.  If you light your tinder and don’t have any kindling standing by and you go running for it, by the time you get back your tinder will probably have burned out.


Kindling is dry wood that will catch fire easily.  It’s usually smaller pieces of wood or a piece of firewood that’s been chopped into very small slivers – usually about the thickness of your pinky finger.  Add this slowly to the tinder.   I usually use the tipi technique, but there are different ways out there.  Basically you have your tinder blazing underneath and on top of that you put your kindling in a tipi shape.  This will cause the kindling to start burning and once you have that burning nicely you can start adding in some larger sticks (fuel) in the same manner.


The next step is the regular size fuel, but again, start with the smaller stuff until you have a good solid fire going.  In the beginning stages of your fire you have to pay very close attention so that it doesn’t go out.  Once it’s built up a little you can relax.  Once you have a good bed of coals going it’s usually a pretty safe bet that you’ve got a good fire and to put it out will take water or burying it with dirt.

It’s possible to start a fire in the rain, but it’s a lot more challenging.  The first thing is to find a spot where the rain isn’t falling directly on your fire.  This can be under a rock overhang or under the roots of a tree that’s been blown over or even by creating a small shelter out of your poncho.  The one thing you’ll have to remember is that a fire is smoky and can drive you out with a sudden shift of the wind.  Make sure your fire is small and close to the edge of your tarp.  DO NOT build a fire directly underneath as it will melt your poncho.

Next, is finding some dry tinder to light the fire with.  Usually at this point it’s best to use the fire starter in your kit because finding something dry enough to light from a spark is going to be a real chore.  Otzi the Iceman carried tinder with him and that was 5000 years ago.  If it was good enough for our ancestors it’s good enough for me.

Now you need to find some dry kindling.  The way I like to do this is to use my survival saw to cut a piece of wood and then using my knife I baton (split) it open and then cut wood from the inside in very small slivers.  This is where it’s important to keep the wood out of the wind and rain.  Once you have enough wood split and some more standing by go ahead and light your fire starter.  I like to take melted paraffin wax and dump it into an egg carton with dryer lint and then let it cool.  When it’s dry I just tear a section of the crate off and throw it in my pack.  You need a sustained light to start it – you can’t do it with just a fire steel, but once lit it’ll burn good and solid for three to five minutes giving you ample time to get your fire going.

The next thing to do is get out your pot and brew yourself a hot cup of coffee because you deserve it.  You’re a survivor!

-Jarhead Survivor


I made a video showing how to light a fire.  This is new software for me and I’m working without a script, so it might seem a little unpolished.  (But that’s how I am!  Unpolished!)

Anyway, let me know what you think.  It’s just a little over four minutes long and I hope to make more videos on various outdoor survival related topics and would appreciate any feedback.  Suggestions like, “Aim the camera higher,” are cool.  Things like, “Damn, your haircut is ugly,” are not.  (I’m a former Jarhead.  What do you want?)

Ok, enough stalling.  Here’s the embedded vid (youtube link):


17 comments… add one
  • irishdutchuncle March 21, 2011, 9:16 am

    …and all this time i thought i had invented that technique. “batoning” does work, and very well, as long as your knife is up to the job. if you’re real short on tinder, you can make “fuzz sticks” with a couple of your kindling pieces. if dry, they will usually catch fire from one match. (picture in your mind: “carving” little Christmas trees out of a twig)

    • irishdutchuncle March 21, 2011, 9:19 am

      (by the way, you “done good” with the video)

      • Jarhead Survivor March 21, 2011, 4:22 pm


    • Jarhead Survivor March 21, 2011, 4:20 pm

      I’ve actually used the Christmas tree method before and it works quite well. I also used potato chips once to start a fire when it was raining. The fat in the chip burned well enough to get my tinder lit.

  • Carolyn McBride March 21, 2011, 10:36 am

    That was a fine vid, thanks for sharing!
    and i think your hair looks just fine. The audio was good, the camera was aimed well, and you taught about more than how to build a fire.
    One cannot practice a skill like that too often.
    I would suggest that those who are new to fire-making do it repeatedly until they are comfortable with it.

    Thanks for posting the video. I look forward to seeing more!

  • noisynick March 21, 2011, 4:05 pm

    Bring on the Hot Dogs………
    Good job on the video I’ve seen folks struggle with fire building many times. Tinder seems hard for folks to understand and you did a good job of explaining.
    Were in scouting here as well aqs prepping and I would tell any beggining prepper to get a BoyScout Handbook and work thru fire building skills as well as some of the other skills they may seem rudimentary at first but theres a vast amount hard won knowledge there.
    Like building fire with flint and steel or the bow saw or the face of your watch or magnifying glass, Or even matches.
    Thanks agiain for a Good Post…..

    • Jarhead Survivor March 21, 2011, 4:25 pm

      The Scout handbook would be a good place to start. I’d also like to do a vid about starting a fire with a fire steel as well. I have one that I’ve used quite often. It’d be good to show that there’s a little more involved using that method too. The tinder has to be much better “quality” I guess is a good word.

  • sanityjones March 21, 2011, 4:07 pm

    Just so none of you make the same mistake, this is not a kitchen table project. Any suggestions on making my wife like me again?

    • Jarhead Survivor March 21, 2011, 4:26 pm


      Roses always brighten up Mrs. Jarhead’s day. (But send them to your wife, not mine.)

  • Jason March 21, 2011, 8:24 pm

    Well done Jarhead.

    Generally I do the same thing except I take some time to build a teepee going from smaller to larger kindling. I’ve found that, although it takes a bit more time, it is a little more impervious to weather conditions like strong winds and light rain plus, ignites rather quickly.

    Once it is up and going, I do the same with the larger pieces & my larger pieces are about 2/3 the size you have there. You’ve gotta work faster but you get a good quality fire.

    I work hard in the first 15-30 minutes to get it hot to ultimately get strong coals, then maintenance is relatively easy, even if the flame goes out – add a piece or two & fan and you’ll be back in business.

    Hitting the spine of the knife was exactly correct & the safest way to split wood however, make sure you have a good quality knife.

  • ChefBear58 March 21, 2011, 10:06 pm

    Good video Jarhead.
    I made some of the wax/dryer lint firestarters for my girls emergency pack the other day, but I saturated the lint with wax and formed it into balls, then I wrapped them up in wax paper (looked kinda like salt-water taffy).
    I dropped one of them into a cup of water and let it sit for about 30 min, then used it to light the fireplace, took a light quick and kept burning for about 15min! The wax paper made it much easier to catch, and because I twisted them up on the ends it compacted the lint/wax, which made them burn nice and slow but hot.

    If you are dexterous and have a little imagination, you can use birch bark to make a pot which can be used for cooking/boiling water.

    For another great source of tinder, look for cedar trees. Even if it’s wet cedar bark will usually take a light pretty quickly/easily. Also the “needles” that fall off the trees and form a bed under the branches makes for good tinder. If you find dead cedar, the center works great for tinder/kindling.

    • Jason March 21, 2011, 11:08 pm

      Excellent, excellent idea Chef.

  • ChefBear58 March 21, 2011, 10:11 pm

    Forgot to mention, My favorite set-up for starting a fire in bad weather is the “log cabin” method. You just stack up the pieces of kindling to form a box, which looks like a log cabin without a roof. Then place your tinder in the center and light it, put larger pieces of kindling on top of the structure once the tinder is going good. This method tends to be pretty wind/weather resistant, and seems to form coals quicker than other methods. If you make a larger “log cabin” structure around the kindling one, you can place a pot right on top of it and use it as a stove until it burns down.

    • Jarhead Survivor March 22, 2011, 8:31 am

      I’ve used the log cabin method in bad weather before, but have found over the years that the tipi method Jason describes above works well in just about any environment. However, after getting the fire going I’ll build the log cabin around the tipi with larger wood to dry it out.

      As to the birch bark vessel used to make a cup or boil pot… I’ve read about it and even have a plan for making one, but have yet to try it. Have you it yet, Chefbear? I’d love to hear how it came out! If not maybe I can put that on my summer to-do list.

      Jason makes a good point about hitting the knife along the spine of the knife, which is absolutely correct. And Irishdutchuncle also makes a good point when he says to make sure your knife is up to the job. My knife is basically a crowbar with an edge, so I don’t worry too much about breaking it; however, if your survival knife is a little less stout be very careful when batoning wood. I’ve broken several knives over the years and it’s no fun being in the woods with a busted knife.

  • Joerocker March 21, 2011, 10:50 pm

    Fire Good.

  • Sequanti March 23, 2011, 8:14 pm

    Great video. Informative. Straight and to the point. Nothing stands out as “bad” regarding the video production.

    I am chiming in only because you asked for for suggestions.

    The framing was great and about the best you can do without multiple cameras and a small crew. If that were an option, then close-ups mixed in would be great, but that can become a real pain.

    If your camera accepts one, a wireless mic could come in handy. In this video I think the sound was well balanced, but if you ever demo something that makes more noise than cracking branches, it will be louder than you speaking since it is closer to the camera’s mic.

    Whether you use another mic or the one on the camera, some kind of wind screen would help, especially since you’ll probably being doing a lot of video outdoors. You can make one out of pantyhose and a wire hanger that might look strange, but work. Don’t forget the flowers for Mrs. Jarhead—it will help when she discovers a pair missing : )

    Wind is the big thing since you won’t know how bad it might be until your done shooting video and play it back.

    What software are you using?

    Anyway, great job!

  • Jarhead Survivor March 25, 2011, 10:29 am

    Thanks for the idea about the wind screen. I like that!

    I also like your idea about multiple cameras. I have two cameras that I use. One is my “good” camera – a new Canon digital that has the standard 35mm body, and then I have an older Casio Exilim slim body camera I carry with me everywhere. That’s the camera that goes on hiking trips, climbing expeditions, canoe trips and stuff like that. I actually like the Casio better, but that’s because I don’t know all the ins and outs of the bigger camera yet. I might try to video tape the same event using bother cameras and then splice them together to see how it comes out.


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